Cows, Movies, and the Global Village

The late Miller Williams was a professor of English literature and a poet. He had a number of claims to fame. One is he wrote and delivered a poem at President Clinton’s Second Inauguration; another is his daughter Lucinda, a Grammy Award songwriter and singer in multiple genres. When in college, I had the good fortune to have Miller as one of my professors.

A memorable piece of information Professor Williams mentioned when we were studying the similes and metaphors used by English poets of the 17th and 18th Centuries was the use of milkmaids as the paradigm for female beauty. Why milkmaids? Well, in those times smallpox was common. It could be deadly. And most who survived were disfigured by facial scars left by the pox.

Milkmaids, however, tended to be immune from smallpox. Their close contact with cows made them susceptible to contracting cowpox, caused by a related virus, but a less virulent disease. Nearly all who had contracted cowpox, recovered, and without scarring. Thus, while so many European women – one being Queen Elizabeth I – had faces marred by smallpox, milkmaids generally did not.

In the late 18th Century, physician Edward Jenner noted the milkmaid phenomenon. Doctor Jenner inoculated a young boy with matter taken from a milkmaid (possibly named Sarah Nelms) who had the cowpox. After the boy recovered, Jenner inoculated him with smallpox. The boy did not develop the disease, and Jenner concluded that the cowpox, which he named “Variolae vaccinae,” provided immunity to smallpox. He published those findings and the technique, as refined over the nexst century and a half, ultimately eliminated smallpox as a health threat. Thus, came the word “vaccination” from vacca, the Latin word for cow.

“Vaccine” and “vaccination” have become generic terms for preventative treatment for many diseases using a microorganism similar to the causal one. Notable successes include influenza, polio, tetanus, and others. Development of a safe and effective vaccine for any communicable disease, however, can be protracted and tedious. The present Covid-19 is the focus of current medical research efforts to develop a vaccine.

Meanwhile, efforts to interdict the spread of Covid-19 appears to be focused on separating people as much as possible. The so-called “social distancing” technique has renewed interest in an institution that was widespread six decades ago, but has precipitously declined: the drive-in theater.

Drive-ins are ideal for social distancing. Moviegoers only have to come into close proximity with family or friends in one car. They can bring their own popcorn, other snacks, and beverages rather than pay the extortionate prices charged in an inside cinema. In a well-designed lot, one does not have to worry about an NBA player sized patron to sit in the seat directly in front.

There are, of course, significant disadvantages. The speaker that hung on the open window usually had poor sound quality. The movies could only be shown after dark, meaning that they could only begin around 9:00 p.m. in the summer. Car engines had to be turned off lest the exhaust fumes from multiple autos become suffocating. This meant that car air conditioners (and heaters in winter) couldn’t run. Confinement in an automobile with two to four others without AC during a Texas summer is a non-starter.

Drive in movies also had a reputation of being low-budget exploitation films. Horror, extreme violence, and other social pathologies were genres. John Bloom, a columnist for the late Dallas Times-Herald, writing under the non-de-plume Joe Bob Briggs, developed a persona as the Drive-in Movie Critic of Grapevine, Texas. Joe Bob wrote every Friday a satirical, always humorous essay about some contemporary cultural phenomenon. The column would end with a “review” of a B-movie given 1 to 5 stars depending on the number of dead bodies, “buckets of blood,” car chases, explosions, and number of exposed female breasts. Joe Bob in April 1985 wrote a parody deemed to be so politically incorrect (to use the present term) that it caused the Times-Herald to cancel the column. Not to worry, that cancellation caused such a firestorm that it made Job Bob a free speech icon. The alternative newspaper Dallas Observer picked up his column and it was nationally syndicated, doubtless to the author’s financial benefit. The Times-Herald went defunct within a decade.

The heyday of the drive-in occurred in the 1950s and ’60s. In 1958, there were 4,063 the United States; in 2019 only 305 remained. Joe Bob Briggs chronicled the decline by a “communist alert” whenever he reported news of one closing. A number of factors caused the drive-ins to decline and in many places disappear altogether. The proliferation of multiplex theaters, appreciation of land values, cable television, and home video players all had a part. The current interest in drive-ins as alternative venues to allow big screen viewing with social distancing will probably not result in many, if any, new ones.

On another note, on May 24, 1844, 176 years ago, Samuel F.B. Morse transmitted the first message by electric telegraph: “What hath God wrought.” The message was encrypted in dots and dashes, Morse Code. Before that day, no human being had ever communicated with another in anything close to real time except when they were within sight or earshot. Morse, of course could not have imagined the communications revolution that occurred over the next century and three-quarters, and especially the most recent decades. His communication probably took several minutes, including sending and decoding, to travel from Washington to Baltimore. It would have taken at least three hours by railway train, the fastest method available at that time. Today, using technology available to anyone, Morse’s message – and a reply – could take a little as a few seconds to and from anywhere on earth.

During the 1960s, Canadian media critic and philosopher Marshall McLuhan, noting the development of radio, television, the newly developed satellite communications, predicted that we are entering the age of the “global village.” McLuhan, and most certainly Morse could not have imagined today.

For more detail concerning drive-in theaters and vaccines, see The Wall Street Journal, May 23 – 24, 2020, p. C3 (print edition) or on-line at https://www.wsj.com/articles/vaccine-safety-from-viruses-courtesy-of-the-cows-maybe-11590088882?mod=searchresults&page=1&pos=1

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